Officer says Malvo was at crime scene

Policeman tells jury he chased sniper suspect at Alabama shootings

Days before Md. killings began

Muhammad trial testimony designed to link the 2 men

October 25, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- An Alabama police officer testified in court yesterday that he came within 10 feet of catching Lee Boyd Malvo after two women were shot in front of a Montgomery, Ala., liquor store, just days before the wave of sniper shootings began in Maryland.

Lt. James N. Graboys of the Montgomery Police Department said that after Malvo fled on foot from the liquor store, he caught up to him in his police cruiser and looked him in the eye for a second before Malvo ran away. Weeks later, after Malvo and John Allen Muhammad had been arrested, Graboys saw their photos on television.

"When I first saw the photographs, I remember feeling sick in the pit of my stomach because I recognized the individual from that night," Graboys said.

Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that he did not see Muhammad that night, Sept. 21 last year, nor did he see Muhammad's blue Chevrolet Caprice, which has been placed at several other shooting scenes. But the distinction may not matter, as the prosecution is expected to draw close links between the two sniper suspects in the coming weeks.

Muhammad's trial wrapped up its first week of testimony yesterday with more witness identifications of Malvo than Muhammad -- 4 to 1 at this point -- but with prosecutors laying the foundation of what is expected to be a strong circumstantial case against Muhammad, 42.

He is charged with two counts of capital murder in the killing of civil engineer Dean H. Meyers at a Manassas, Va., gas station on Oct. 9 last year. His trial was moved to Virginia Beach in an attempt to find a jury that had not been scarred by last fall's shootings.

Prosecutors introduced into evidence this week a map book from a Baltimore public library found in a parking lot across the street from where Meyers was killed. The map contained Muhammad's and Malvo's fingerprints, according to a government analyst. A police officer also saw Muhammad in his car in the lot shortly after the shooting.

Yesterday, prosecutors showed the jury a small .22-caliber revolver that they say was used in two shootings before the sniper rampage last October. The weapon was allegedly used in September last year to shoot Paul LaRuffa outside his restaurant in Clinton and Muhammad Rashid outside his liquor store in Brandywine.

The gun was recovered weeks later from an apartment building stairwell in Montgomery, Ala., near where Graboys saw Malvo. Graboys said that after he made eye contact with Malvo, the teen-ager turned around and ran for a fence next to the apartment building.

"He cleared the fence very quickly. He moved like an athlete," Graboys said. By the time Graboys, who was carrying heavy police equipment, cleared the fence, Malvo was about 150 feet ahead of him. Malvo disappeared behind a Dumpster and was not seen again.

Prosecutors continued their methodical march yesterday through 16 shootings -- 10 of them fatal -- that ballistics evidence has connected to Muhammad and Malvo. The final shooting presented yesterday was that of Hong Im Ballenger, 45, a beauty store manager killed as she approached her car Sept. 23 last year.

Ballenger's husband and sister testified in court yesterday, and prosecutors showed photos of the damage inflicted on Ballenger's head by a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle.

Kwang Im Szuszka cried when prosecutors showed a photo of her sister sprawled on the ground next to her car, a pool of blood by her head and her red lunch pail at her feet. "She was a wonderful person, like my mother," the sister said. "She's six years older than I am, and she was a great sister."

Defense attorneys have repeatedly objected to the display of autopsy photos as unnecessary. A photo of Ballenger's bloodied head was left on video screens in front of jurors for almost 10 minutes during testimony yesterday. The defense also objected to testimony from victims' relatives as prejudicial.

"We just don't think it's relevant," said defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro. "There may come a time when we think it's appropriate, but this isn't the time."

Judge LeRoy F. Millette has overruled those objections.

Next week, the prosecution is expected to present evidence of the shootings in Maryland's Montgomery County that marked the beginning of the sniper's rampage.

First week of trial in review

Monday, Oct. 20

As the case trial begins in Virginia Beach, Va., amid worldwide media attention, John Allen Muhammad shocks the court by firing his lawyers and delivering a rambling opening statement, claiming at times to have direct knowledge of the sniper attacks and at other times to have had no involvement. Muhammad pledges to give the jury the "truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," and says he is tired of the negative things being said about him in the news media.

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